Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow – review

The Bolshoi Ballet may be an important part of the London ballet landscape with its frequent summer seasons, but Russian audiences are far less familiar with Britain’s own Royal Ballet. The visit the company paid to the Bolshoi last week was only its fourth Moscow tour since 1961, and, after an 11-year gap, curiosity was intense, despite the news that two dancers had chosen to boycott it over Russia’s latest anti-gay legislation.

In this UK-Russia Year of Culture, the repertoire was predictably (and happily) British in tone, with a mix of heritage Royal Ballet works and recent contributions by the company’s resident choreographers.

Ashton’s Rhapsody got the tour off to a strong start, with blazing performances from Steven McRae, fiendishly brilliant in the role created for Baryshnikov, and Laura Morera, conjuring miracles of speed and Ashtonian articulation. Next on a triple bill was Wayne McGregor’s Tetractys, new this season and an unfortunate choice for international scrutiny. Subtitled The Art of Fugue, it takes Bach’s eponymous late work for a long-winded ride under garish neon lights. Its loose structure, all individual choreographic phrases converging with each other or the music seemingly by accident, is reminiscent of Emanuel Gat’s recent work, with similar flaws.

McGregor could pick up a tip or two from the impressively tight construction of Christopher Wheeldon’s 2006 DGV: Danse à grande vitesse. Set to a rousing Michael Nyman score celebrating the TGV, the French high-speed train, it makes dance silk out of a sow’s ear, spinning lush movement from prosaic imagery (a corps de ballet as a moving train, women as unidentified flying objects). Zenaida Yanowsky, Eric Underwood and Marianela Nuñez made the most of it.

“Danse à grande vitesse” is an apt description for Natalia Osipova, who soared through the third movement with Edward Watson. The tour marks the Russian superstar’s first performances on the Bolshoi stage since her departure from the company three years ago, and if the breathless reception she got is any indication, she has been missed.

As a consolation prize, Moscow got Osipova’s first Manon with the Royal Ballet (London will have to wait until the autumn to see how she handles MacMillan’s ballet). As we have come to expect from Osipova, it was both entirely idiosyncratic and thoroughly compelling. It is still a work in progress in the early scenes, where her transformation from shy, Giselle-like ingénue to temptress stretches the imagination; by Act Three, however, she was an irrepressible force, unbridled in her agony and unafraid to be ugly as Carlos Acosta lifted her like a rag doll.

Another new RB principal made his Manon debut in Moscow: Matthew Golding, a safe pair of hands but somewhat muted opposite Lauren Cuthbertson, who let the choreography sing with filigree phrasing.

It has been a season of transition for the Royal Ballet under Kevin O’Hare after a glut of departures last year, and while hires such as Osipova or Vadim Muntagirov have proved shrewd, new dramatic partnerships still need to be nurtured. As it is, character roles pulled crucial weight in Moscow, with Gary Avis proving yet again, as Monsieur G.M. and the Gaoler in Manon, what a rock he is for the company.

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